There's something reminiscent of James L. White's The Salt Ecstasies in Laura Jensen's Memory. Something so confessional and vulnerable, as if the poems can barely be spoken aloud. They have a private spell, one that memory casts, with its difficult but necessary moonlit weights and departures. Here's the last two stanzas of White's "Lying in Sadness":
You exhale a fist of memory.
I love you like weathering wood
in a room of empty pianos.
When you return to something you love,
it's already beyond repair.
You wear it broken."
It's this sense of impossible return, the struggle of similes to find the right image to say the right feeling, and the nostalgia, the homesickness, that make me feel Jensen and White are related. I can't get one out of the other, even though White's book is filled with a lover's elegies and Jensen's is written to her self as a woman alone.
I haven't read her before. Oh I've listened to the myths, heard the stories of some crazy lady in a muumuu wandering AWP, been to the blog that is something of a bird's picking of lines, a nesting in pieces, straws, ribbons, facts. I've touched Bad Boats, and almost bought one when I was an undergrad, when the book was still in bookstores, but I hadn't the good sense to steal it.
Today I took Carnegie Mellon's new edition of Memory out to the beach, and though I was struck by the rooted feminism of the book, which Kevin Prufer points out in the foreword, I was more struck by how it results in witchy announcements from the kitchen, from the single woman in the world, from the girl-child. In fact, it's one of the quieter things I love about the book: Jensen's uncanny ability to return us to the woodlands, half-dressed. The woman alone, I think, is rare in books. I didn't even know I craved it until I read her. Poems like "West Window" ("It is all here in a cluttered cache / my luck, my dreams, and privacy.") or "Last Saturday of the Year" which ends with a description of a chair:
"I stop for coffee.
The chair seat is beautiful. It is round
with a pattern of water lilies, cattails,
flags, pale brown on a brown ground."
You'd never know, with such adoration and careful attention to the beauty of the chair seat, that the same poet wrote these lines just a stanza before:
"And it is noon. A cock crows.
It is like a thin wolf crying."
Jensen is tonally masterful, and the ease with which she sees, with which her poetry moves from the adoration of a thing to its almost terror-full description, for me, is bewitching. She is the mother we fear. I say what I mean. Her poem "Lipstick", for example, ends in the terror of abstraction and recognition:
"Of me there were single hairs, brown with damp.
I was looking up. In the white air by me
there was printed an emblem in a black square,
a signature. I was what was there."
. . . . . . . .
I'm sure I should say more, but the waves are so imaginary I have to touch them, I have to hurl my half-nude body at their cool wall. Then, I'll walk out of the green foam like some new kind of wet discovery. I'll have to peel the dying seaweed from my calves. My skin will be stinging in all this light, cathedrals of salt and empty applause.
. . . . . . . .
Of course my favorite poems are always mythic entertainments and fairy tales, poems for children. My favorites get their children baked into pies and eaten. My favorites get lost and thrown into prison. My favorites are orphaned:
If every man were a clove and ginger
man, all smiles while the storm shook the glass,
if every cookie shaped like a horse
could tempt snow into cedars and paths,
if the candlelight looked down on
a real person made of flour and spice,
there he would be, all plaid and patchouli,
striking her harmless as gratitude,
harmless as a little chipping bird
at heart, that when he comes close, must fly.
She made her saints of bone, each multiple
and dinosaurian, all those fragments
enormous in possibility. The hands
of the scholar fell together in sleep,
spooned soup by daylight, lived and breathed
to die. The moon paused when she looked
its way, a mask on the sky. Light is not
a disguise for darkness, not yet, not
in her mind, not this day, in her present,
while out of a candle breathes his scent.
It is a waste of time, following men,
but what else can you do, if you do not
know the way to trap one? She followed him
out to the snow in her argyles, in that
town that had winter, knowing she was wrong.
But what is a little light in the window?
What is a circle of flour, little mounds
of soda and salt, recipes like prayers
but the old pursuit? He's the gingerbreadman.
You cannot catch him.
. . . . . . . .
Friends and Strangers, steal it if you can!
. . . . . . . . .